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Fellows Find: H. P. Lovecraft letter sheds light on pivotal moment in his career

By James Machin

James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

 

One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.

 

The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.

 

Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:

We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.

 

Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.

 

Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.

 

Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:

He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.

 

Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.

 

The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.

 

With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.

 

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Video: Fellow discusses creation of performance histories

By Marlene Renz

Matthew McFrederick visited the Harry Ransom Center’s Reading Room as an international fellow from the University of Reading.  He conducted research for his thesis, “Staging Beckett in London: Constructing Performance Histories of Samuel Beckett’s Drama.”

McFrederick’s research is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded “Staging Beckett” project, which is a joint research project involving the University of Reading, the University of  Chester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  This project will study the impact of Beckett’s drama in theater culture and theater practice in the UK and Ireland from 1995 to present day and develop a publicly accessible online database of productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland.

McFrederick’s thesis will catalog and analyze significant productions of Beckett’s drama in London and chart the development of Beckettian performance in a number of London theaters such as the Royal Court, the National Theatre, and Riverside Studios.  During his time in the reading room, McFrederick, looked at material from the Center’s collections, including those of Samuel Beckett, Peter Glenville, and the English Stage Company.

McFrederick’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the International Placement Scheme.

Lost in the Archives: Video highlights fellow’s research methods

By Marlene Renz

Kamran Javadizadeh, an assistant professor in the English Department at Villanova University, visited the Ransom Center this fall to conduct research for his current book project, “Bedlam & Parnassus: The Institutionalization of Midcentury American Poetry.”

The idea for Javadizadeh’s book began when he discovered that Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop could both see the U.S. Capitol from their very different positions in 1950—one was a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital and the other the poet laureate. He argues that the combination of these two poets creates an understanding of what poetry meant culturally and societally in post-war America. While at the Ransom Center, Javadizadeh studied the Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound collections.

Javadizadeh’s work was jointly funded by the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship and the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, as part of the Ransom Center’s fellowship program.

The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

Video highlights fellow’s “humanizing” research in the reading room

By Marlene Renz

Alison Stone, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter, recently spent time in the Ransom Center’s reading room conducting research for her thesis, “Contemporary British Poetry and Objectivism.”

Her thesis will chart the exchange of ideas and influences between a group of British poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including Andrew Crozier and Gael Turnbull, and a group of late-Modernist Americans, called the “Objectivists.” She explored the archives of Charles Tomlinson, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and others to pinpoint exactly what the British poets borrowed from their American counterparts.

Stone’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its International Placement Scheme. . The Ransom Center is one of the seven participating host institutions for this program.

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View other videos of fellows discussing their research

 

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Ransom Center acquires archive of Gabriel García Márquez

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014). The archive documents the life and work of García Márquez, an author who obtained nearly unanimous critical acclaim and a worldwide readership.

 

Spanning more than half a century, García Márquez’s archive includes original manuscript material, predominantly in Spanish, for 10 books, from One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) to Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004); more than 2,000 pieces of correspondence, including letters from Carlos Fuentes and Graham Greene; drafts of his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; more than 40 photograph albums documenting all aspects of his life over nearly nine decades; the Smith Corona typewriters and computers on which he wrote some of the 20th century’s most beloved works; and scrapbooks meticulously documenting his career via news clippings from Latin America and around the world.

 

Highlights in the archive include multiple drafts of García Márquez’s unpublished novel We’ll See Each Other in August, research for The General in His Labyrinth (1989), and a heavily annotated typescript of the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). The materials document the gestation and changes of García Márquez’s works, revealing the writer’s struggle with language and structure.

 

Born in Colombia, García Márquez began his career as a journalist in the 1940s, reporting from Bogotá and Cartagena and later serving as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Cuba. In 1961, he moved to Mexico City. Alongside his prolific journalism career, García Márquez published many works of fiction, including novels, novellas and multiple short story collections and screenplays. He published the first volume of his three-part memoir Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale) in 2002.

 

Supporting the university’s acquisition is LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, a partnership between the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. LLILAS is regarded as one of the strongest Latin American studies programs in the country, and the Benson Collection is recognized as one of the world’s premier libraries focusing on Latin American and U.S. Latina/o studies.

 

Future plans relating to the archive include digitizing portions of the collection to make them widely accessible and a university symposium to explore the breadth and influence of García Márquez’s life and career. The García Márquez materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

 

Read the release in Spanish.

 

Image: Gabriel García Márquez working on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Photograph by Guillermo Angulo

Undergraduates review music production records for “Rebecca” to understand business side of Hollywood film scores

By Jim Buhler

James Buhler is an Associate Professor in Music Theory and the Director of the Center for American Music at The University of Texas at Austin. Below, he writes about using materials from the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection to teach students in his Signature Course “Introduction to Music and Film Sound” about the business of being a music composer in Hollywood.

 

One of the innovative elements of Signature Courses at The University of Texas at Austin is that they require a visit by the class to one of the research centers, libraries, performing arts venues, or museums on campus. The idea is for the course to introduce students to one of the numerous Gems of the University. In my case, I selected the Harry Ransom Center because its David O. Selznick collection has extensive archival material on the music production for all the films made by Selznick International Pictures (SIP). (For an overview of the music holdings in this collection, see Nathan Platte’s blog post.)

 

My Signature Course is reasonably large (120 students), and it is not feasible to base a big project around our visit to the Ransom Center. And with students having only 50 minutes to examine materials, I cannot expect that students will be able to get anything more than a general impression of what’s available in the collection. Nevertheless, through careful selection of documents, I can use the collection to reinforce points made in lecture: films require coordinating the labor of a large number of people, much of it unacknowledged in the screen credits, and even the creative talent credited in the film in practice retained few rights over the products of their labor. Students are continually surprised to discover that Hollywood composers had few rights over their music.

 

Most of the material I have the students look at comes from the production Rebecca (1940). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and with a score by Franz Waxman, Rebecca is artistically one of Selznick’s more successful films. We look at many documents, including these:

 

  • a contract between SIP and MGM for the right to use Waxman who was under contract at the time with MGM
  • various contracts between SIP and MGM for the right to use music Waxman wrote while working at MGM
  • contracts between SIP and various composers and orchestrators for work on Rebecca
  • time sheets documenting the orchestral players and pay rates at various recording sessions
  • a copyright registration under Selznick’s (not Waxman’s) name for the title music to Rebecca
  • a contract between SIP and Irving Berlin Music to manage the musical rights of Rebecca
  • and a letter from Waxman to Selznick asking for permission to play a suite from Rebecca on a radio show.

 

These documents all serve to emphasize the basic economic conditions of soundtrack production. Music is not something that just appears on a film’s soundtrack: it is made by people and at considerable time and expense. Moreover, the music and its production costs are carefully tracked throughout the process of production. The studio claimed complete ownership of the music, and composers did not even enjoy the right to play excerpts of their music at a concert or on the radio. (This situation would change only in the 1970s.)

 

Composers also had little control over the music in the film. Time constraints meant that composers nearly always used orchestrators, and as was the case with the score to Rebecca, frequently several composers beyond whoever was credited for it contributed additional music to the score. Moreover, cues could be replaced by other music without the composer’s permission. In at least one place in Rebecca, for instance, music by Max Steiner from an earlier SIP film replaced a portion of Waxman’s score. The insert is clearly visible in the working production score, which is another item I have the students examine. Because Selznick owned the rights to this music by Steiner, this change would not have cost the studio anything.

 

The students come away from their visit to the Ransom Center with a very concrete sense that music production costs a considerable sum of money, that numerous people are involved in it, and that composers, although well compensated, sacrificed most rights over their music during the studio era. These are points that I can and do make in lecture as well, but when students visit the Center and see the documents in person it seems to make a much larger impression.

 

Related content:

Signature Courses at the Ransom Center

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

 

Image: Manuscript of violin score from Rebecca by Franz Waxman from the David O. Selznick collection.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Mystery Solved at the Harry Ransom Center

By Natalie Zelt

As a graduate intern, I have the opportunity to respond to a variety of research queries about the collections. Recently, I helped solve a mystery laid by two differing editions of John le Carré’s 1974 thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, was trying to get to the bottom of a story he had once heard about a difference between the first edition of the novel in the United States and in England.

 

According to Sisman, just before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was about to be published, David Cornwall (alias John le Carré) had been travelling in Laos and Cambodia with Washington Post journalist David Greenway, and Cornwall had asked Greenway to look through the segments of the novel set in Hong Kong.

 

Early in the novel, Ricki Tarr describes to George Smiley his anxiety after Irina has failed to appear at a rendezvous: on a hunch he had decided to go down to the airport. “I took the Star Ferry, hired a cab, and told the driver to go like hell. It got like a panic,” Tarr tells Smiley. The airport was then in Kowloon, across the water from Hong Kong Island.

 

After reading this passage, Greenway asked Cornwall, “Does this novel take place in the present?”

 

“Yes, why?”

 

“So if he’s so anxious to get to the airport quickly, why doesn’t he just jump in a cab and go through the tunnel?” (The Cross Harbor Tunnel linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the location of the airport, had opened in 1972.)

 

“Oh, God!”

 

As soon as they reached Bangkok, Cornwall contacted his publishers, and though the American edition had already gone to press, it was not too late to change the passage in the British edition.

The Ransom Center has the first British edition and the first American edition. True to Le Carré’s enigmatic style, Sisman asked me to check the “the fourth sentence of the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 7” in both.

 

Being that it was a spy novel, I was a little nervous about what I would find, but Sisman was right. The American edition mentions the ferry; the British does not. It was a bit of an added thrill to be able to trace the movements of a spy in two different editions.

 

Adam Sisman’s John Le Carré: The Biography will be published by HarperCollins in the United States and by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom next fall.

 

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Contemporary debates on vaccination policies have historical parallels in Ransom Center’s collections

By Jennifer Yang

Recently, The New York Times published an article on vaccination that has highlighted a resurging controversy. In late June 2014, a federal judge upheld a New York City policy barring unimmunized children from public schools, and objectors have decried the policy as an infringement upon their rights. In the United States, incomplete vaccination rates were highest among the poor until 1994, when the Vaccines for Children Program made it more affordable. Now, these rates are highest among the middle- and upper-classes, due to increasing philosophical and religious objections. However, such controversy is hardly new in the centuries-old history of vaccination. Documents in the Ransom Center’s collections cast historical light upon the modern vaccination debate.

 

In 1721 Boston, a smallpox epidemic generated an atmosphere of fear and suspicion when prominent physician Zabdiel Boylston began to counter the illness with vaccination methods. Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston clergyman, publicly declared his support of Boylston’s practices and encouraged other physicians to do the same. Outraged mobs believed vaccinators to be no better than murderers, and Boylston and Mather became subject to popular attacks, culminating in Boylston going into hiding with his family and practicing medicine in disguise. An assassination attempt made on Mather expressed the furious sentiments of the Bostonian public, as a bomb was thrown through his window with the affixed message “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

 

Vaccination came into more prominence and credulity with the publication of English physician Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae in 1798. Jenner made the observation that farmhands and dairy maids, exposed to cowpox disease through their daily work, seemed to possess immunity against the more severe disease of smallpox. Jenner conducted an extensive series of cowpox inoculation case studies, often following patients for several years and even inoculating his own 11-month-old son, to see if his hypothesis about the effects of vaccination were true. Jenner’s findings increased general confidence in vaccination, as he proved that cowpox inoculations from human to human could guard against smallpox, while previously patients were more dangerously inoculated directly with the smallpox virus or from diseased animal matter.

 

Jenner’s work contributed to the passing of the UK Vaccination Acts, key vaccination laws ranging from 1840 to 1907. The 1840 Act made vaccination free, while from 1853 to 1874 a series of more stringent acts made vaccination compulsory and even penalized objectors with fines and imprisonment. Anti-vaccination groups and protestors became more common in this period, as citizens were gripped by fears of the rumored spread of diseases such as syphilis through negligent vaccinators. Vaccination Brought Home to the People, an 1876 pamphlet by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, exclaims “If the devil delights in torturing, as it is represented, then indeed must he revel in Vaccination!” Pamphlets and lectures expressing such sentiments abounded as membership in anti-vaccination leagues and groups increased. A famous supporter against the UK Vaccination Acts was playwright George Bernard Shaw, who in 1906 wrote a fervent letter of support to the National Anti-Vaccination League, equating official methods of vaccination with “rubbing the contents of the dustpan into the wound.” Dissent was somewhat appeased by the Vaccination Acts of 1889–1907, which enforced regulation and safety measures for vaccination, as well as allowing for conscientious objection.

 

The Ransom Center also possesses many manuscripts on French scientist Louis Pasteur and his work on vaccination.  Pasteur worked on a rabies vaccine from 1881 to 1885, experimenting on dogs, rabbits, apes, and eventually humans. A catalyst to his professional reputation came about in 1885, when Joseph Meister, a 9-year-old shepherd, was mauled by a rabid dog. Though Pasteur did not hold a license to practice medicine, he conferred with his colleagues about the possibility of treating the boy. His longtime friend and collaborator, physician Émile Roux, refused to work with him on the case. Finally, Pasteur found two eminent physicians who agreed to supervise the treatment. The boy recovered successfully, and Pasteur was lauded as a hero—he became nationally famous, with poets even writing odes to his genius, and went on to co-found the Pasteur Institute with Émile Roux on the laurels of his acclaimed scientific achievement.

 

Religious and philosophical objections have risen over the past decade, with religious exemptions for vaccinations nearly doubling in New York, and tripling in Ohio, where a measles outbreak spread throughout the Amish population. The nation has also seen a resurgence in measles and mumps, with the highest rate of measles since 1994. Debate over vaccination laws and compulsory policies in schools continues to rage, as fervent supporters arise to counter objectors in equal measure. Contemporary battles over vaccination controversy may find parallels in the past, as the centuries-old arguments and ideas resound in the modern voices of vaccination’s supporters and detractors.

 

 

Related content:

Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

 

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Director draws upon Tennessee Williams collection for UT production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

By Alicia Dietrich

A production of Tennessee Williams’s iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on campus last week, and director Jess Hutchinson delved into the Tennessee Williams collection at the Ransom Center to guide some of her work on the play.

 

Set in New Orleans, William’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic centers around fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she seeks refuge in her sister’s home, only to clash with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

 

Hutchinson, a third-year MFA Directing candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, was especially interested in digging deeper into the ending of the play, and in the Williams collection, she found multiple drafts of endings that were quite different from the published version.

 

“Williams tried on different ways to end Blanche’s story and handle her departure,” said Hutchinson, noting one discarded draft included Blanche being forced into a straightjacket. “And he chose this very specific, relatively controlled exit. That tells me a lot about what that moment is for her, how to stage it, how to think about where she is mentally and emotionally at the end of the play.”

 

Hutchinson worked with a group of undergraduate actors in the production, and exploring the drafts and ideas that Williams discarded helped guide how she and the actors approached the ending of the play.

 

“It focuses our range of choices in rehearsal,” said Hutchinson. “I feel that it would be disingenuous to the play for Blanche to be completely out of control at the end. She isn’t taken away in a straightjacket. In other drafts, she is. So that tells me Blanche still has some lucidity, that she retains the ability to make choices in that moment. The actress and I have looked for Blanche’s power in that scene, her control. Where can we see her consciously make decisions, and how do they fuel her departure with the doctor and matron? The actors and I have come to see that as a moment of recognition. Something in this doctor—this stranger—reaches a place in her that is whole and hasn’t been broken by this experience. And really, we got to complicate what some might write off as a moment of clear ‘insanity’ because I was able to see to see the other drafts that Williams tried first.”

 

As Hutchinson sifted through various early drafts of the play in the Williams collection, she was struck by how “not good” many of them were and how it was a great reminder that the creative process includes false starts and dead ends even for the most talented writers and artists.

 

“Something about seeing documents in a famous, iconic writer’s handwriting revealed that this person who wrote this thing that I love was closer to me than I might have thought,” she said. “He was a human and an artist and was trying to make something that spoke to the core experience of what it is to be a person—what it means to interact with other people in the world and have your heart broken and have moments of incredible joy. Just the humanity that’s present in these archival materials and what we can see in these drafts and false starts and moments of inspired genius made it possible, at least for me, to be bolder in my own work in the rehearsal room.”

 

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas at Austin. Tickets are available online.

 

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John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

By Marlene Renz

Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007.  In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights.  His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of  Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.

 

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today.  To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.

 

In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.

 

Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?

So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.

 

In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life.  How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?

In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.

 

Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?

The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory.  For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.

 

 

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